The Memphis Police Union cheapens the value and importance of our law officers these days by positioning itself largely as a special interest group rather than an organization representing dedicated public servants.

New Council member Lee Harris, like many novice members before him, defaulted to political rhetoric about misplaced priorities in the city budget before participating in his first budget process and better understanding how major projects are financed.

It’s as if there should be a financial primer that can be shared with every appointed and elected official in city government before budget hearings begin, and for that matter, also with members of the news media.  There seems such a lack of understanding about the general dynamics of city budgeting and the nuances of various funding sources.

It’s probably asking too much to expect of average Memphians, who end up only hearing the words, “city project and costs,” and immediately start complaining about city government without ever hearing the explanations about financing.

Aiming Wide

This week, the police union talked about City of Memphis spending too much on special projects and not enough on law enforcement.  That’s a hard concept to wrap your head around, since every cent of property tax revenue is spent on police and fire services – and it’s still about $75 million short.  So when, Mr. Harris talks about police and fire being priorities, it’s hard to imagine how they could be higher without shutting down most of city government.

In fact, Councilman Harris said – and we agree with him –  that parks should be one of city government’s main priorities along with the predictable police and fire, but the very reason that parks cannot be a higher priority is because better upkeep, maintenance, standardized equipment, and quality facilities have fallen victim as more and more funds have been sucked up by police and fire services over the years.

It’s because of the lack of funds for parks that the Overton Park Conservancy was created, and in the past 20 years, as the budgets for police and fire services climbed, the budget for parks stagnated.  And to be completely accurate, the budgets for community centers, libraries, museums, and most quality of life amenities did the same.

Strangely, Councilman Harris suggested that the city’s emphasis on the riverfront is a sign of misplaced priorities, which seemed strange since the riverfront is in his district and if anybody on City Council should verbalize how a languishing, tired riverfront tells the world that we are a declining, dull river city, you would think it would be him.


Councilman Harris said City of Memphis has spent too much on the riverfront, and yet, of the total amount spent on the riverfront, about 10% of the total comes from city revenues.  The $215 million spent on redeveloping The Pyramid, removing Lone Star Concrete, gaining city control over the Memphis Cook Convention Center, and redeveloping the Pinch Historic District comes from the state’s portion of the sales tax and not on city general fund revenues.  If none of these projects had been undertaken, the money could not have been spent on police, fire, or other city services.  Instead, the state sales tax revenues would have gone to Nashville to be spent across Tennessee.

We predict Beale Street Landing and the American Queen will be highly successful, and provide the special sense of arrival and place that have been lacking on the riverfront for so long, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see the Council member for downtown at the festivities.

Meanwhile, the union mangles the facts about city financing in a proposed TV ad that would make the national Super PACs proud.  Exuding a “me first” attitude and a “what’s in it for me” philosophy, the ad cites as wasteful the Overton Square garage with a price tag of $18 million, disregarding completely that the majority of the funding was spent on a flood detention basin.

The ad mentions things like the American Queen headquarters’ incentives without pointing out that there are revenue streams to pay them back.  It criticizes the city’s incentives for Mitsubishi and Electrolux, and there are legitimate concerns to be expressed and debated about them, but that’s not the point of the TV ad.  Instead, it acts as if creating thousands of jobs in the wake of the recession is a waste of money, ignoring the fact that the best way to increase city revenues is through the expansion of the Memphis economy.

Sacred Police Cows

We do agree with union officials when they say that City of Memphis has “money management problems” and the wrong priorities.  For us, the evidence for those conclusions is the tendency to treat police and fire divisions as if they are sacrosanct and that every proposed change to their budget is a threat to Western civilization.

Here’s the thing: every service of city government – no matter what it is – should be scrutinized in detail and every employee should be justified with specific performance measurements.  The resistance to change in MPD is legendary, as shown by the death by ten thousand pin pricks campaign against the current police director and the scorched earth rhetoric aimed at forcing elected officials to cower in the corner rather than ask the tough questions that need to be answered during budget hearings.

But the kicker to the union’s saber-rattling is this: there’s no plan to lay off police officer and firefighters.  That’s been taken off the table already, and from where we sit, that’s unfortunate.  However, that being the case, it leaves the feeling that the ad is all about manipulating emotions, ignoring the facts, and creating the kind of fear in Memphis that the police – and every city employee – should be working hard to eliminate.

In the real world, the choice isn’t between police cars and Fairgrounds or Pyramid improvements, because if Memphis never spent another dollar on the Fairgrounds or Pyramid or if it never redeveloped the Pinch District or improved the Convention Center, it would not free up any money to spend on public safety because the taxes that fund these projects are not property taxes and legally can’t be spent on anything like policemen’s salaries or new police cars.

At a time when Memphis couldn’t ever get this myopic, anti-Memphis, irrational state legislature to give us anything resembling our fair share of state revenues, we can take the state sales taxes and pay for improvements without spending any city tax money.  It’s a largely untold story that the City of Memphis should be crowing about, and instead of the niggly commentary by the police union and politicians, they should be patting city elected officials on the back for investing in new jobs and economic growth without threatening one dime of the fire and police budget.